Melissa Harris-Perry Tries The Help
The Help has been billed as nothing less than a new American literature classic. Written by Kathryn Stockett, the story is set during the early years of the civil rights movement in Jackson, Mississippi, what could be argued as ground zero for the racial discrimination of white people against black people. Despite the racial animosity and disharmony of the time, a southern society girl, Eugenia Skeeter Phelan, returns home from college and wants to become a writer. Advised to write about something that disturbs her, she decides to collect stories from the black women who wait on white families and to put their stories to paper.
The story has been described as optimistic, uplifting and empowering for women but with something to offer everyone. However, after listening to an interview of Ms. Stockett on National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm Show, I found the author’s understanding of race relations between whites and blacks extremely simplistic and totally white-washed of the revulsion inflicted by the dominant white community. When Ms. Stockett described her family’s treatment of their black maid back in the day as loving and some form of royal treatment despite the fact that the maid was not allowed to use the bathroom in the house that she no doubt cleaned, but instead in an outhouse in the backyard, or how their maid was not allowed to eat with the same utensils that the white family ate with, even though the black woman no doubt cleaned those knives, forks and such, I had little doubt that Ms. Stockett’s book would be a form of propaganda that would sanitize white people’s prejudice at the time. The disgusting racial hatred of people in the klu klux klan can be self evident. The disgusting behavior of Ms. Stockett’s own family is much more devious. Even the Supreme Court recognized the harm in the often practiced white enforced condition of separate but unequal facilities. Ms. Stockett can describe the racism of her family as something wonderful and people will line up to buy that crap. But Ms. Stockett’s own prejudice is quite clear to people who have some sensitivity to racism. I am very sorry but I find it difficult to support people who wear their prejudice against black people so openly on their sleeves.
So I must confess to some despair over the fact that this book has been turned into a movie. After all the hoopla over the book, I was sure that the movie, if given a reasonably descent production crew and cast, would get the same response. Sure enough, I heard that Oprah Winfrey gave the film a rave review. Other raving reviews are sure to follow.
But I was watching The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell when he announced that coming up next was a review of The Help from Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor of political science at Tulane University and an author in her own right. She has a reputation for focusing on issues that impact the black community. My curiosity was piqued. I waited on the edge of my seat for the review to come. After a series of false starts and more promises of the review coming up next, Ms. Harris-Perry appeared in the final segment of the show.
The review gave me back my hope. She had watched a screening of the movie exclusively for Lawrence O’Donnell and found it so disgusting she joked that she should be paid workers’ compensation for watching it. She said she actually made a series of tweets while she watched the movie that made the experience sound excruciating. After watching the film she said she had to go home to calm down because it would be too easy to frame a black feminist talking about a feel good, happy movie about race relations with a critical eye as a killjoy. She wanted to make clear that the acting and the immediate story had been somewhat entertaining. And she gave props to the acting of Viola Davis who played the maid Aibileen Clark.
But it was the stories happening around the main story that Ms. Harris-Perry took issue with, saying that black domestic workers during these early days in the civil rights era were just props for the white protagonist. The story reduced the struggles of these black women as negligible fare for the real story of what’s happening in the white people’s lives. She compared the film to The Ghost of Mississippi, a story about what had happened in the life of Bobby DeLaughters, the white district attorney who successfully prosecuted white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith for murder. Oh and by the way, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was killed.
The morning after her critique aired, I read reviews of Ms. Harris-Perry’s review. Like everyone and anyone who may be vocal about his or her sensitivity to the black community it was no surprise to see comments attacking her as a race baiter and a person who is prejudiced against the white community. Hey, she never said she was trying to be Oprah. We already have plenty of people trying to apply for that kind of role. Ms. Harris-Perry is simply trying to voice what some of us see. She recognizes this film, and consequently the book, as just another Hollywood product where the real story of the racial suffering of black people takes a back seat to the story of a young white woman. The story of young white people making a difference is a story that is put to the silver screen at least several hundred times a year. And most of these films are done without the need to soften the rock-hard edges of our tremendously disparate history of racial prejudice that still impacts the black community to this day.
One particular nasty chain of comments started with the rather nonsensical observation that Ms. Harris-Perry found herself too light skinned for her own comfort and wanted to appear blacker, thus the extreme review. This was followed up by the observation that she wasn’t one hundred percent black. As if any of that really mattered. I wonder if any of these people would accuse Ms. Stockett of being over the top white or trying hard to be whiter than most white people when she paints a depiction of racism with such bland colors to tone down the intensity.
Then again, maybe Ms. Harris-Perry is trying to be blacker than most people try to be. But I’m willing to bet that her skin color has nothing to do with it. I believe it has more to do with the fact that too many people work too hard to distance themselves from black people, to draw deep lines in our social fabric with the unfortunate result of confining the majority of black people to specific limits, and then turnaround and try to white wash the whole thing as nothing more than business as usual. It’s kind of like when a white family forces their black maid to use the outhouse instead of the indoor plumbing, and then describe the whole separate but unequal condition as some form of love.